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A New Survey Shows Paid Family Leave is Popular Across Party Lines … So Why Isn’t It Happening?

Hey, politicos, want to pick a winning issue to campaign on this fall? Let us offer a suggestion: paid family leave.

Don’t just take our word for it—admittedly we’re a little biased here at Working Mother. Heed the consensus of your constituents: A new national survey shows a whopping 84 percent of voters support a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave policy—and that support cuts across party lines.

That’s right. Despite the historically high political polarization that defines our time, paid family leave is the rare policy that unites Americans of all backgrounds. According to a survey of 1,004 registered voters conducted by PerryUndem and Bellwether Research & Consulting, 94 percent of Democrats, 83 percent of Independents and 74 percent of Republicans support paid family leave. So do overwhelming majorities of voters of all ages and races, in all regions and at all income levels.

“For voters, this issue isn't political, it's personal. Most people have or will need paid family or medical leave at some point,” says Vicki Shabo, the vice president for the National Partnership for Women & Families, which commissioned the survey. “They want a national plan that helps ensure they won't miss their baby's first smile or their parent's last breath."

Perhaps it’s not so surprising the measure is gaining traction. The United States is, after all, the only developed country without paid maternity leave. And several prominent Republicans have voiced support for the measure in recent years, including President Trump, who called for it in his State of the Union address earlier this year. And, as Shabo points out, several states have recently passed generous paid family leave policies with bipartisan support.

Massachusetts adopted a strong, comprehensive paid family and medical leave program with the signature of a Republican governor this summer, following Washington state's historic, bipartisan victory last summer. Bills were introduced in 31 states in the most recent legislative sessions, and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle asked incisive questions at a hearing called by Louisiana's Senator Bill Cassidy last month,” she notes.

With so much success happening at the state level, and voters of all stripes voicing support for a federal policy, it begs the question: What’s the holdup on a national plan?

The devil, of course, is in the details—particularly in how to pay for a potential program. “That is the tricky part,” says Aparna Mathur, Ph.D., a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “Even when you poll voters on how they think the policy should work, we get a mix of ideas ranging from employer mandates [employer-funded leave] to payroll taxes [employee-funded leave], with an overwhelming support for an employer mandate as we saw with the Pew research last year, and we know that that would just not work as a policy at the federal level. So I think the dilemma for people in Congress is how to actually make this work.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, introduced a bill last week in the Senate, the Economic Security for New Parents Act, which would provide paid leave to families for at least two months—but it would require them to borrow from their future social security benefits to fund it. Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner, another Republican, is expected to introduce a companion bill in the House next month, according to CNN.

“Conservatives like it because it does not impose a new tax to fund the parental leave, and in essence it tells people that they have access to funds that they have already paid into, and can claim early,” Dr. Mathur explains.

But longtime paid leave advocates, like Shabo, have several big concerns with the proposed legislation. First, it only covers paid leave for new parents, and not those caring for sick family members or recovering from their own personal illness. And it means workers will have less money available when they retire. According to an analysis by the Urban Institute, it would result in a 6 percent benefit cut, equal to more than $11,000, for a typical parent of two.

Dr. Mathur is worried because the current version of Rubio’s bill doesn’t provide job protection—meaning moms could get paid while out on leave, but they might not have a job when they return to work. Currently, only 60 percent of American workers are covered by the job protections provided in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Voters don’t seem very keen on Rubio’s proposal either. The most recent survey also asked them how they believe paid family leave should be funded—and it ranked dead last among the four policies tested. Only 3 percent of voters preferred to pay for parental leave by using existing Social Security funds.

The big winner: a joint model where both employers and employees share the cost of paying for the program. (Notably, this is the funding model many state paid family leave programs use, and the one proposed by the FAMILY Act, the paid leave legislation supported by many Democratic lawmakers.) Thirty-eight percent of voters preferred this method, while another 21 percent wanted employers to cover the cost entirely. Surprisingly, 19 percent believed the cost should come out of the federal budget, even if that means a tax increase.

Whether Rubio’s bill will succeed remains to be seen, particularly pending the results of the midterm elections this November, but there’s no doubt paid family leave is now a popular notion with blue and red voters alike. “I have mixed feelings about the proposal, though I am really encouraged to see Republicans providing new thinking on this very tricky issue,” Dr. Mathur says.

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